Females in Muslim countries experience mass educational discrimination.
The battle for equality in education between men and women is fought among citizens and their governments in nearly a half of the world’s countries. The struggles are particularly intense in the Middle East, as is evidenced in the now well-recounted story of young Malala Yousufzai, who has become the figurehead for girls in Islamic countries who hope without much promise for a chance at classroom learning.
In 2009, when she was 11, the Pakastani-born Malala wrote to a BBC Magazine her desire to receive proper education as do many of the boys and the influence of the Taliban in her life. Well-received outside her homeland, Malala was targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan. She was approached and shot by a Taliban officer, while boarding her school bus. The bullets lodged underneath the skin in her forehead, yet she survived. The news of that event spread worldwide, not only turning Malala into an international heroine for her courage, but also bringing to an even greater attention to the injustices in many Islamic countries toward young women.
Many countries are making progress in their allowances for women to have the ability to access the same educational privileges as their men. When that is the case – when women are given the same opportunities for classroom study – statistics show that they achieve greater levels of success than men. The World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education included in their 2010 study that “Once they get access to higher education, women exceed men in grades, evaluations and degree completions.” (21)
Whether wary of this statistic or simply acting in accordance to religion, the efforts to bring the female population similar freedoms in education are significantly suppressed, even actively threatened, in Islamic countries throughout the Middle East.
The Atlas shows great disparities between many countries where Muslim populations are prominent, including Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan, with statistics indicating the lack of women’s educational privileges. Each of these countries has failed to provide even remotely balanced education opportunities for women, as the Atlas confirms that equality has not been reached in either primary or secondary education. That is not the case in call Islamic countries, though, as the same study lists Iran, Turkey, Oman among the Muslim nations that have at least achieved a balance of gender education at the primary level only.
Much of the challenges surrounding promoting female education arise from Islamic law, known as the Sharia, which puts limits on women in nearly every societal detail. Challenging the sharia, even if it is an interpretational difference, is seen to be a serious offense and is met with great opposition, often expressed in violence.
Fear of being targeted by the Taliban has not led to fewer voices in strong opposition to Islamic culture. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated against it, womenagainstsharia.com, that is devoted to writing, posting, and re-posting from other websites, all stories and reports that include the suppression of women in Muslim countries. Recent stories have focused on Egypt, where a law had been proposed, and promptly removed, from consideration by the government, that would allow for some level of gender equality, even though it also came with a qualifier of having ot comply on all levels with the laws of the Sharia.
The Washington Post has also reported on the many debates and fights for women’s issues in these cases, citing the difficulty of continuing the arguments because so often the focus shifts from the specifics needs for the women and instead becomes a war of words that rages over certain rules and laws in the Sharia that have alternate interpretations and meanings.
Signs of public opposition to the Sharia and those favoring female oppression have also increased in many Muslim countries in the past five years. Some citizens continue to argue for the suppression in the format of a fatwah, or a publically-made decree of Islamic law. Recent fatwahs, according the womenagainstsharia.com, have included demands for women to have acid dumped on their face if they are seen using a cell phone, among others. But these fatwah-makers are now seen to be outsiders to the main population, deemed as old-fashioned. As one Pakistani journalist writes, these people must “wake up to 2012.”
The challenges to turn the growing public support for promoted female education into governmental action will continue to provide difficulties in Muslim countries, though it is not entirely due to the religion’s oppressive nature. As Irina Bokova, the Director-General of the United Nations Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO) states in her forward to the Atlas: “Equality in education must be integrated into wider policies at the economic, social and political levels.” Unfortunately, the economic distresses that have befallen many countries throughout the world have made financial-based effort to promote educational equality ineffective, even allowing for an increase in gender disparity.
Muslim women will not discontinue their fight; they are well familiar with the role of the suppressed. The fight will continue, the even greater challenge may come even after equality is reached. As has been reported, equal opportunity for education does not, in many cases, lead to equal benefits of that education. Many women who excel academically when given the chance still are discriminated against in society when looking to find a job in reward for their degree.
Yet they will continue to fight.